Retail workers have also been pushed into the new cultural battle- getting customers to wear masks and follow basic sanitation and rules which has often resulted in conflicts and arguments
Stuck in the midst of a cultural and war like zone- the front line retail workers are not only vulnerable but also mentally affected with the unfortunate arrival of the pandemic. Retail workers have always been at the receiving end of consumer frustration, corporate demands and countless egregious incidents but before this agenda could be consciously raised and worked upon, the pandemic struck and now the situation is worse than ever.
The retail industry is one that kept going irrespective of the lockdowns and restrictions as the grocery workers kept reporting for work and now- they face a dilemma of employment survival. In a first, retail workers have also been pushed into the new cultural battle- getting customers to wear masks and follow basic sanitation and rules which has often resulted in conflicts and arguments.
Another shortcoming of the retail sector brought to light because of the ongoing pandemic has been the health care provisions for the workers. A system so unwilling and ineffective- it has forced workers to show up for work even with symptoms because leaves are unpaid and not granted without a doctor's certification. Workers are bound to be at the job while also struggling to work in an environment vehemently exposed to the virus.
As per special reports and media outlets, at least 30 grocery workers have died of the virus and over 3000 have reported symptoms and have been exposed - while their colleagues plead the public to adhere to social distancing and dispose off the protective gear instead of leaving it loose in the carts, leaving the workers with a new threat (yet again!)
All these factors have led to emotional and physical distress for the grocery staff. A staff personnel from a store says, "In the beginning, we were treated with a certain degree of appreciation but now, four months into it, everyone is simply so rude."
Findings have also revealed that the pandemic and the negligence towards workers has resulted in poor employee experience (enjoyment, satisfaction and motivation) while also affecting their mental well being, all the same.
Of course, the topic of scrutinising and ruminating the consumers and customers is a tricky one because a lot of factors play a key role and the only solution cannot be to go around schooling them to empathise with the retail staff and service people (and which also remains a topic for another day)
What retail stores and supermarkets can do, however, is to invest in the well being of workers because here lies a very clear business case of improving employee productivity that goes beyond the pandemic.
Retail store owners and managers should take it upon themselves to provide for free health check ups of their staff (not just regular temperature checks), especially during this pandemic, while also granting them a safe space to communicate their grievances about health and finance. In the event of mistakes or errors it is encouraged that they are held accountable without shaming or blaming them.
When this happens successfully and efficiently, the same can be communicated to the consumers/customers by employing little nudges- for starters.
Even small signs/posters with personalised messages can do the job. For example, a poster on the entrance of the store can say something like, "We are wearing masks and gloves for YOUR safety. Are you looking after OURS?"
The plight of retail workers is a social wound and it needs a social balm. The social balm is empathy. This carefully knit system - which is the second highest GDP donor, and whose most urgent priority throughout the pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for customers, is slowly breaking down- with the staff worried about health, money and well being and their future.
While strict policies and their implementation will take time, grass-roots remedies can be a way out for the time being.
This is obviously not a blanket solution but it is most certainly a beginning. Thanks to the pandemic, this problem has been brought to light and challenged.
Now is the time to re-evaluate how the staff in our shops experience work, and for governments and employers to introduce the necessary measures to protect them from any kind of violence or abuse and provide a safe working environment which also protects their mental and emotional well being. And for us all, as customers: to reconsider our behaviour towards them.
-- Neha Yadav/Lucknow
(The author is a Marketer and a Social Emotional Researcher who in her own words is "spreading the wisdom of empathy and compassion". Views expressed are personal.)